The Truth, Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth
Here's a Sunday post featuring the remarks by Timothy Radcliffe on the subject of truth, which while intended for a largely religious audience, seems strangely apt for the media age.
Radcliff begins the history of our modern dilemmas with Truth in the Englightenment quest for the unmediated truth without the a priori filters of theology (which BTW sounds very much like the hope that Internet will deliver disintermediated information). But at some point the positive commitment to discover truth as it truly existed became subtly corrupted into something outwardly similar but radically different: an institutionalization of cynicism and doubt. The Enlightenment project which began in the search for the Truth became by slow degrees confused with an effort to prove that the Truth did not exist.
We understand truth almost exclusively in terms of the tradition of the Enlightenment. This is a wonderful and fertile tradition that has given us modern science and much freedom, but if it becomes the sole paradigm of seeking the truth, then it is not surprising that we are in such a mess. ...
Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, ‘From the seventeenth century onwards it was a commonplace that whereas the scholastics had allowed themselves to be deceived about the character of the facts of the natural and social world by imposing an Aristotelian interpretation between themselves and experienced reality, we moderns, that is we seventeenth and eighteenth century moderns – had stripped away interpretation and theory and confronted fact and experience just as they are. It was precisely in virtue of this that those moderns proclaimed themselves the Enlightenment, and understood the Medieval past by contrast as the Dark Ages. What Aristotle obscured, they see. ... In its search for certainty, the mind must doubt everything. One must be sceptical, suspicious and distrustful. It is characterized by Bernard Williams this way: ‘There is an intense commitment to truthfulness, or, at any rate, a pervasive suspiciousness, a readiness against being fooled, an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lie behind them. ... But if it becomes the primary way that we understanding seeking the truth then we shall inevitably create a society which is mistrustful and suspicious, and whose social bonds crumble.
He asserts that in our 21st century world we no longer have any Truth to talk about. What we have is universal suspicion. In place of bonds of trust we have conspiracy theories. And there is no way out of this enveloping cloud of doubt and cynicism Radcliff argues, unless we make an act of Faith that the Truth exists. Because only then is there any point in seeking it.
The central intuition of Aquinas was that, in the words of Cornelius Ernst, the world ‘effortlessly shows itself for what it is, flowers into the light.’ Of course sometimes we make mistakes and misunderstand. We may tell lies and wear masks. But the truth is prior to error and deceit. As fish were made to swim in water, human beings were made to thrive in the truth.
It would be easy to dismiss Thomas as just naïve. He never looked down a microscope and was astonished at what he saw. But that would not be fair. He spent his life arguing with people who believed that the world was not as it seemed. The Dominican Order was born in the clash between Christianity and the Cathars who thought that the material world was created by an evil principle. But for Thomas our openness to truth is grounded in faith. Everything is the fruit of God’s word, and so is ultimately intelligible. We are attuned to the world, because the one who made the world made us and made us so that we might understand.
One of the most interesting passages in Radcliff's address is the argument that not only does the Truth exist but it necessary for society to exist. Once the concept of the Truth is lost and Lies become commonplace, things fall apart. And the first thing to come to pieces are words themselves. Language is the first casualty of cynicism.
Truthfulness, then, is not just the reporting of facts. Alasdair MacIntyre maintains that facts, like gentlemen’s wigs and telescopes, were not invented until the seventeenth century. Truth is the basis of human community. It is the medium in which we encounter and belong to each other. St Augustine talked of humanity as ‘the community of truth.’ He was virulently opposed to a heresy called Pricillianism, which maintained that one was under no obligation to tell the truth to strangers. There is a lot of it about today! For Augustine telling the truth to strangers is part of building the human community, constructing the Kingdom. And this explains why many theologians were extremely intolerant of even white lies. To lie was not just to fail to be accurate. It is destructive of language, the basis of human solidarity. ...
For us, there might not appear to be much of a difference between a true remark that misleads and a lie. That is because we do not have that profound sense of the sacredness of true words as the foundation of human belonging. Lies pollute our natural environment. We die spiritually, like fish in a polluted river.
People often say that the Church is hung up on sex. For most of the Christian tradition the Church has been far more preoccupied with lying. In Dante’s Inferno, the top circles of Hell, where people get off lightest, are reserved for people who got carried away by their passions. They desired the good, but got themselves into a mess by desiring it wrongly. The middle regions of Hell were reserved for people who desired what was bad, above all for the violent. But the absolute pits where kept for those who undermined human community: the liars, the fraudulent, the flatterers, the forgers, and worst of all the traitors. Sometimes the modern Church does get a bit hung up about sex, and this suits the media, since it locks the gospel into a safe little box where it can be mocked. But for a traditional Christian, lying is seen as much more serious.
And more startling still is Radcliffe's assertion that we inflame and exacerbate even the War on Terror by avoiding the Truth and substituting for it the comforting Lie.
It often said that the first casualty of war is the truth. There is absolutely no chance of winning this so-called ‘war on terrorism’ unless we build communication with those who hate the West by trying to speak the truth and to hear it. Otherwise we shall spin ourselves into ever deeper mistrust and mutual destruction.
Yet that does not mean license to self-righteousness, because the other half of conceding the existence of the Truth is admitting that we have to listen and to learn.
The opponent of God’s truth in the Bible is Satan, the father of lies. And his lies do not consist in being economical with the truth, or making errors of judgment as politicians say these days. It is not even just that he tells fibs. His untruthfulness is in sowing doubt and mistrust between God and Adam and Eve. He makes them suspicious. His name, ‘Satan’, means ‘The accuser’, and the Bible concludes with the saints singing that ‘the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down.’ For Christians the great lie is to see other people unmercifully, to shut our eyes to the goodness of their humanity and to weight them down with the burden of their sins.
We do not see the world aright unless we see it mercifully. Iris Murdoch wrote, ‘The great artist sees his objects (and this is true whether they are sad, absurd, repulsive or even evil) in a light of justice and mercy. The direction of attention is, contrary to nature, outward, away from the self which reduces all to a false unity, towards the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability so to direct attention is love.’ As Simone Weil said, ‘love sees what is invisible.'
But only if we are open to the invisible and to love. Whether those two quantities exist to be seen we have yet to discover. But if we return to the object of the Enlightenment, which is the search for a Truth that exists, then we need not dismiss the quest for love and healing as futile. It lies there for us to find and we may glimpse it along the way like the flowers into the light. Then we can live and die, in doubt perhaps, but never in despair.